Director Catherine Hardwicke guesses that her new film, Red Riding Hood, is possibly the first major studio feature film with a female director, cinematographer (Mandy Walker, ACS), costume designer (Cindy Evans), editors (Nancy Richardson and Julia Wong), and digital colorist (Maxine Gervais). She joyfully refers to these colleagues as “bad asses” and “rock stars” whom she was “honored” to work with on reimagining a classic fairy tale for the big screen. Recently, I wrote about Hardwicke’s close collaboration with Walker and Gervais to paint the film’s visuals during the digital intermediate phase at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging (MPI) in the April issue of American Cinematographer, but along the way, I learned more about the efforts Hardwicke and Walker took to distinguish the story’s visuals during production in the Vancouver area last year.
One of the things I learned was about work she and her team did to make sure the colors and style of the movie, as well as the dark woods that play such a prominent role in the story, did not in any way resemble the hugely successful Twilight vampire movie she directed in 2008, which was shot in a similar geographic region (Oregon’s Pacific Northwest, with the sequels being also shot in the Vancouver area).
“Oh no,” Walker chuckles when asked if there are any visual similarities between Red Riding Hood and Twilight. “This is a completely different creature than her vampire film. Catherine made it very clear she wanted to create a new world that people had not ever seen before.”
Indeed, Hardwicke emphasizes that she turned down the chance to direct Twilight sequels because she “doesn’t like sequels and I didn’t want to do the same, old thing.” Thus, she concedes that when it was decided that Red Riding Hood should be shot in Vancouver, “I was terrified that all the locations were done to death by the Twilight franchise. There were certain trees we established in the first (Twilight) movie, and I didn’t want the woods in this film to look like those.”
Hardwicke found Walker early in the film’s development when the cinematographer she partnered with on her previous movies, Elliot Davis, proved to be unavailable due to a scheduling conflict. She was taken with Walker’s efforts on Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, and began researching her work.
“This particular movie is set in snow, we build a village, and we create a fairy tale world almost from scratch, mostly on stages except for a few days on location,” Hardwicke says. “I wanted someone who had worked a lot on stages. There were many good cinematographers that I looked at, but when I researched what she had done for Baz on Australia, I called her up. I was in a hurry—we had to design sets and get going, and I needed a DP to talk to about what would work and what wouldn’t. Mandy came over and we brainstormed. We realized the stages were smaller than what we ideally wanted, and I also realized I had to fit the entire movie into the number Warner Bros. gave me—$42 million (and just 42 days of principal photography). I found Mandy to be very collaborative in helping me in those early conversations, and it became a great relationship.”
In the end, most of the film was shot on stages where filmmakers could control their environment thanks to opulent sets from production designer Tom Sanders. Hardwicke did, however, take three crucial exterior scenes to the only place in Vancouver that prominently features exotic trees that are not indigenous to the Pacific Northwest—the 55-acre VanDusen Botanical Gardens, a landscaped development located in the center of Vancouver.
“The greens’ team dressed (VanDusen Botanical Gardens) to create our own unique forest,” Hardwicke adds. “And then, the big woods outside of grandmother’s house were created entirely on a soundstage—gigantic, hollow trees we constructed, up to six feet in diameter, that lean in and have spikes and thorns on them. One of the main locations is a village made out of heavy logs. The studio was worried that it would be too monochromatic, so we added several whimsical ‘golden’ Aspen trees for a pop of color.”
Walker explains that although those were the only exterior locations in the project, they were crucial because “they gave us scope and distance, which we could only achieve occasionally with visual effects to extend our sets on stage. The art department dressed the forest with colorful plants and flowers, and we always had atmosphere and mist on both stages and location as a visual motif to give a magical feel to the environment. I replicated the (studio) lighting by using sun for shafts of light, and when we had no sun, I had 18k HMI lights in Condors to create the effect.
“For locations where we decided we would not be diffused enough for the sun, such as the open areas of the haystacks and the river scene at the end of the movie—we rehearsed all our angles, and then we waited until the sun was behind a (distant) mountain, and then really worked fast as we could to get all the coverage in a few hours before sunset,” Walker adds. “It was crazy, but we had no choice on quite a fast schedule.”
But for creation of the even more exotic woods located near grandmother’s house, Hardwicke decided to create the effect entirely on stages. Walker points out those stages were not as large as would have been ideal, and therefore, lighting was particularly cramped—a challenge her team handled with strategic fervor.
“I worked on a plan with Dave Tickell, my gaffer, and Mike Kirilenko, my grip, to be able to have as much flexibility in our lighting as possible, as well as being able to change the look in a short amount of time,” Walker explains. “We had a series of 30-ft. light boxes filled with a mix of daylight and tungsten Kinoflos in the ceiling that had a quarter-grid underneath. They were our ambience for night and day. Surrounding the sets were light boxes (25-ft. by 16-ft.) that were on an I-beam so they could travel the length of the stage. They all tilted and could go up and down, and the corner ones could pan also. They were filled with Mole Pars and covered in the quarter grid. We would dim them to create a warm, directional sun that was diffused by clouds, as it was winter and most of the time snowing or recently having snowed in the story. For night scenes, we would gel them blue to be soft, directional moonlight. And for night, when the predominant source of light was from fires, we gelled them with full 85 and put them in flicker mode. For some scenes, the look was gaps in the clouds and sun poking through in shafts, to which the visual effects’ team added the skies in the wide shots. For this effect, we had 20k MoleBeam projectors, sometimes gelled with an 85 gel for warm effect, scattered around the stage. On the ground, we made big and small light boxes that we could easily bring to have light on a lower angle. Catherine likes to move the camera a lot to follow the actors and their performances around the sets with a lot of 360-degree shots. The interiors were the biggest challenges (for that) as the sets were very small, cramped, and had low ceilings that were in the shot a lot of the time. We made up small light boxes—covered wagons—and used Chinese Lanterns a lot as they could squash up against the ceiling. Sometimes, we had them on boom poles, as the camera would move, and we would travel with it.”
All this attention to detail was necessary since Hardwicke labored so hard to give the movie a unique medieval fairy-tale look. Reference for much of that look overall, from a design perspective, she brought to Walker in the form of ancient paintings—imagery created by artists like Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel.
“They gave us the color palette, and also references to costume, and some to lifestyle, since the film is set in medieval times,” says Walker. “The other more cinematic references were storybook images and photographers such as Bill Henson and Rocky Schenck—photographers whose images are ‘other worldly’ and have a sense of fantasy in a modern sense. We also watched many other fairy-tale films, but we always wanted to create our own world and style that was original. Production designer Tom Sanders, (visual effects supervisor) Jeff Okun, and (costume designer) Cindy Evans were all part of creating that style. We spent a lot of time in pre-production working out how all the departments could contribute to this.”